A Leap of Empathy: Psychology Professor Elaine Luti

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Elaine Luti is Adjunct Assistant Professor of Psychology at JCU. She is also a practicing psychoanalyst and psychotherapist, and a member of the International Association of Relational Psychotherapy and Psychoanalysis, the International Association of Psychoanalytic Self Psychology, and the Guild of Psychotherapists. She specializes in the study of dissociation and dissociated states in traumatized individuals, the recognition and treatment, and innovative ways of working with dissociated states. Professor Luti also investigates the application of the findings of Intersubjective Infant Research (attunement, timing, response to facial expression, etc.) to the therapeutic process with adults.

Elaine Luti

Professor Elaine Luti

What drew you to Rome? How did you become a psychology professor (as well as a psychotherapist)?
My first degree was a BFA in painting which I got in the U.S. back in the 60s. I had many interests: literature, writing, cooking and baking, teaching, philosophy, psychology – but at the time of choosing college, art was on top. But art school was not intellectually stimulating enough for me, so I turned to another of my interests and decided to explore philosophy. That turned out to be far too abstract for my taste. In that period I discovered psychoanalysis and read everything I could find in that field. I tried to apply for clinical psychology programs. Unfortunately, I was told flat out that I would have to start from a B.A. and preferably be working in the field already! I was desolate.
Meanwhile, I met an Italian guy studying in Boston and we went together for a year. When he graduated and was offered a job back in Rome he said, “Hey, why don’t you study psychology in Italy?” Usually life throws us some difficult choices – like pursue a career or pursue a relationship – but in this case, I was lucky and they came together. Over 40 years later we’re still married, have two kids, two grandchildren, and I was able to pursue my dream and became a psychotherapist.

As for teaching, since I was very little I always knew I wanted to teach, and when I got older I knew I wanted to teach in college. When I finished my degree at the University of Rome, I applied to all the international schools there were, and got a job immediately at the now-defunct American College of Rome, where I had free rein to teach any psych courses I wanted, as long as students signed up. I also worked as the counselor for the students of the college. I love teaching and for me, it’s always been my fun activity. If I were rich I would even pay to teach – after all some people pay to play golf, and you couldn’t pay me enough to play golf!

When ACR went bankrupt after a few years, I was desolate again. I commuted to Naples to teach, I taught in a high school, anything I could find. I had applied several times to JCU over those years but they always had someone teaching psychology until in 1999 another of the sopranos in the chorus I was singing in asked if I would be interested in teaching – her sister taught at JCU and was retiring! I ran home and sent my application that very night. And here I am.

Before coming to JCU, you have taught at the University of Maryland and Framingham State College in Naples. Do you find teaching at JCU to be different?
The University of Maryland’s international program was primarily designed for U.S. military stationed abroad to get a college degree. I found myself teaching with textbooks that had really distant theoretical perspectives from my own, but I’d take a critical stance towards them, the same approach I encouraged my students to take towards my own courses. I really loved teaching there because my students were primarily young disadvantaged people who were willing to risk their lives (joining the army) to get a college degree. They were not selected by SAT scores, and often their writing or other skills were very bad.  But they were the most enthusiastic students I ever had, the most motivated (not motivated by grades and GPAs but by the privilege of being able to learn) and they were the ones who learned the most – I could see how their thinking deepened and broadened in the course of a semester. I felt I was really teaching.

I now also teach in an Italian post-graduate school of psychotherapy, to students who already have their Master’s and are licensed psychologists. Here my main observation is that they are not used to being asked to come to their own opinions or express themselves in class. I believe this is one of the best things about American education when it is good. But at the same time, Italians have a very broad education and know history and literature and if I refer to the Babylonians they actually know who they are, which, sadly, is not the case with many of my U.S. students.

What is your teaching philosophy?
I believe teaching is first of all a relationship. I see students as younger colleagues, as adults, who I presume are motivated and interested. I try to apply the principles I believe in – for instance, empathy – to teaching as well as to everything else. I could not be a good therapist without empathy. I can’t see my patients as adversaries (even if they sometimes feel themselves to be that) and I can’t see students as adversaries. So I try to take a collaborative stance in class. I don’t try to trip them up or be too concerned about their attendance. If they’re absent or late with an assignment I presume they have a good reason. My favorite classes were those where someone interesting and enthusiastic told us what they knew and thought, and posed interesting questions and unsolved problems for our consideration.  Since that’s what I liked, that’s what I try to do.

I always hated powerpoint, so I never use it if I don’t have something really visual to show. I like students to look at me, not the wall, and I try to read their interest, boredom, puzzlement etc. and adapt accordingly. Too many puzzled faces and I try to explain better. Too many bored faces and I try to examine how I can be more engaging. I never expect students to memorize facts, but to try to figure out if what they think are facts are actually true, and what they are based on, and mostly, what to do with them. Like with therapy, in teaching my main tool is myself and I try to explain things with vivid metaphors, lots of examples and acting out of scenarios. I see assessment as the most unpleasant part of teaching and try to help students do well. I encourage them to redo assignments until they do them well, and if their final is better than their midterm, I figure they finally learned what I wanted them to learn and I give them the grade of the final for the course. In other words, I see the goal as teaching rather than sifting out.

What type of projects are you working on now?
After having edited the Italian translation of George Atwood’s masterpiece, The Abyss of Madness, I am working with him to put together some “dialogues” on issues of psychotherapy, and also in collaboration with my husband, he’s translating and I’m editing Italian translations of some of his many online articles. Over the last three years, I’ve been writing a monthly column called “Psych Dept” in the online monthly magazine The American|In Italia on psychological issues. It’s been a sort of mission of mine to provide good, sound, and deep psychological content for the layperson.  Most self-help literature is pretty dreadful.

I’m currently working on producing a website of recipes for expats (and students) in Italy, which will be called “In Cheerful Chaos” based on the premise, that everyone can cook, that cooking can be easy and fun without using pre-made ingredients, and many of the foods expats come to miss are not so hard to reproduce from scratch.

I’m also trying to be as much of a grandmother as possible at a distance to my two amazing grandchildren, and enjoying my own kids as much as possible, despite their living abroad.

Lastly, I am hoping to find the time to write more fiction and do more art.

Please tell us about a challenge you encountered in your work as a teacher or as a therapist. How were you able to overcome it?
There are many challenges in therapy. Most of them require a leap of empathy – what I call radical empathy. When I have been able to see beyond the problem at hand (sometimes a patient’s rage at me) with a radical empathy and I’ve actually listened to the patient, I could overcome this difficulty. I also learned much from my patients, probably more than I learned from my books. In teaching, it’s a constant challenge to have to assign a grade to student work. I hate to be a judge. The best I can do is give feedback, but the grading is always painful, even after 25 years of teaching.

What are the most common reasons that college students seek therapy? How does someone know that they should seek therapy?
After over 20 years as a college counselor, many of them as head of the counseling department at JCU, I mainly have experience with study-abroad students. I think that many come abroad thinking that they should have “the best time of their lives” which includes an almost moral obligation to have fun, to post happy selfies with cheery faces, and at the same time do well in classes, chalk up points for future job or grad school applications and never be unhappy, lonely or homesick.

This is way too much to expect. Being away from one’s circle of human attachments is not a normal state for human beings. It can be dealt with, overcome in some instances for a period of time, but it is a difficult task in itself, and if they had any problems like minor depression or anxiety before, usually being far from home is like a magnifying glass held to those problems.

Many college students have huge burdens on them to succeed, to excel, and this is way heavier than it used to be because their private lives are scrutinized as well as their academic lives and we live in a very aversively competitive and un-empathic culture of “winners” vs “losers.” They have to participate in extra-curricular activities, maintain a high level of physical attractiveness, have fun at all costs, and never be a downer or express any “negativity” by complaining about anything. This is pretty much impossible and extremely unhealthy. When it is achieved it can cause severe problems itself. In particular, it can awaken problems in those students who feel that they have to succeed and be the best at all costs.

A student or anyone else should seek therapy if they feel they are not good enough, that their problems are a burden for others, that they have no reason to be unhappy (no one is unhappy without a good reason) or if they experience their emotions as uncontrollable storms that make them thrash. They should seek help if they are using non-human means excessively to soothe themselves like bingeing, alcohol, other substances, dangerous or compulsive sexual activity, starvation, over-exercising and so on. (Soothing should be a human connection not an action or a substance). If the joy has gone out of life, or they feel compelled to continue something that hurts them, if they just don’t feel right, these are good reasons to seek help. In choosing a therapist, they should listen to their gut feelings, and choose a therapist based on these same feelings of being listened to and understood, or even of being considered understandable.

What would you like students to most take away from your classes?
Curiosity. Critical attitude and constant questioning – particularly questioning the underlying premises of anything they read. Self-understanding. Empathy.

In your classes you seem to take a firm stand against the concept of “measurability” in Psychology. The western world strives to quantify everything, from intelligence to emotional responses and American higher education still heavily relies on standardized tests (SAT, GRE etc.). What is your take on this?
Measurability is a subjectively decided-upon criterion. If you believe everything is measurable, then you must apply this to everything. How much do you love on a scale of one to ten? And is my scale the same as yours? See my article “Crunched by Numbers” where I discuss this and “objectivity” in general.

To me, the most important thing is what it is that you are counting, not how you are counting it. Astrologers also claim a scientific basis for their conclusions because they take accurate measures and use mathematics. But what are they counting? Even what may seem to be rigorous studies using “hard evidence” are explicitly or implicitly defining their criteria, which is always a subjective decision. How do we determine the success of therapy? Symptom relief? Ability to form lasting relationships? Flexibility in dealing with problems? Not everyone will agree on all criteria, nor how they can be measured. Unfortunately, much of the quantified research in the social sciences is based on what is more easily measurable than on what is most relevant. Symptoms are easy to notice, flexibility in solving complex relational problems is not. As for the tyranny of test scores, just what do they think they’re measuring? How many facts a person can memorize? How well they can produce memorized answers quickly in a situation of great stress? How much money they have available to be able to take the courses necessary to gain a high score? And are students with good test scores the best students? My experience with young, disadvantaged military students at U of Maryland in Naples shows otherwise.